By Charles Goldberg
OXFORD, Miss. – Tray Matthews' surgically-repaired shoulders have held up quite nicely. His command of the defense has grown. And here we are, past the midpoint of the season, with the Auburn safety calling the defensive shots before the snap, and, by most statistics, is doing a fine job of it.
"He's a quarterback. He runs it. He's the CEO of running things," says defensive coordinator Kevin Steele. "He really understands what we're doing conceptionally and where his fits and where everybody else's fits are. He's playing at high level right now."
Auburn certainly was doing that last weekend when it held Arkansas to 25 yards rushing. It will now try to turn in another strong defensive performance against pass-happy Ole Miss at 6:15 p.m. Saturday in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. No. 15 Auburn, 5-2 overall and 3-1 in the Southeastern Conference, will be trying to extend its four-game winning streak. Ole Miss is 3-4 overall and 1-3 in the league.
Matthews played through bad shoulders last season. "I just kept on playing with it until I really couldn’t play anymore," he said in August. Offseason surgery fixed one shoulder. Four weeks later, more surgery fixed the other. But he still missed spring practice while Steele, just in as Auburn's defensive coordinator, sized up his players.
"It's the first year here and I don't know what happened in the past. I watched some film. But, obviously, the guy had two shoulders that required major surgery. I think he's well," Steele said.
So does coach Gus Malzahn.
"He's a great competitor, he has some experience and he's starting to get more experience, more comfortable with the system," Malzahn said. "But it's him being healthy because he hasn't been healthy until this year."
Auburn's defensive line has won a lot of praise of late, but Malzahn says that group isn't alone.
"I'm going to throw the linebackers in there, too," he said.
The linebacker group of Tre' Williams, Deshaun Davis and Darrell Williams have put up the numbers. But the secondary duo Matthews and perennial tackle leader Rudy Ford have, too. They represent Auburn's top five tacklers.
Tre' Williams leads the team in tackles with 43. Then comes Ford with 42, with 39, Davis with 29 and Darrell Williams with 25.
They figure to be busy against Ole Miss. Quarterback Chad Kelly leads the SEC in passing yards and figures to be throwing it again. The Tigers may have gotten a taste of that last Saturday. Steele said Arkansas called 38 pass plays, and that the Tigers knocked down the quarterback 15 times and had four sacks.
"All in all," Steele said, "it was a very good complete game."
Alas, "it's over. Henceforth, until the banquet occurs and they show the highlight tape, they're not allowed to talk about Arkansas except to say thank you. We've moved on to Ole Miss."
Charles Goldberg is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @AUGoldMine